Lionfish are by far one of the most destructive organisms when it comes to maintaining the health of our reefs. Controlling the population of this invasive species has become nearly impossible, as they continue to spread up and down the Atlantic Coast. But, scientists may have come up with yet another solution to quell vast numbers of lionfish in the form of a high tech, marine robot – unleash the “Lionfish Terminator.”
The Lionfish Issue
Introduced to U.S. waters in the 1980s, lionfish have become an extremely successful invasive species, spreading their population up and down the Atlantic Coast. Lionfish are able to multiply swiftly, with females spawning every two to three days and laying up to two million eggs per year. Their status as an apex predator gives them the advantage as they plow through flourishing reefs, leaving the reefs barren in a matter of weeks. Smaller, native fish are unable to recognize the unwelcomed newcomers as a threat, and the lionfish stuff themselves to the gills. Lionfish are unique in that they continue to gorge past the point of satiation, consuming to the point of fatty liver disease. Not only do lionfish consume vast numbers of fish, they diminish the populations of numerous economically important species, such as snapper, grouper, and spiny lobster. Although there are programs put in place to control the invasive population, such as culling programs, daily dives, and fishing tournaments, until recently, a safe and efficient solution had not been devised.
Robotics in Service of the Environment (RISE)
Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot (creator of the Roomba vacuum), spearheaded the creation of the lionfish-zapping robot. It was during a diving trip in Bermuda where Angle learned of the damage these lionfish cause to our ecosystem and sought to come up with a solution. Partnering with several other conservation and robotics groups, as well as scientific institutes, Angle generated the non-profit company “Robots in Service of the Environment (RISE).” RISE’s mission is “to apply scalable robotic technology to solving large-scale environmental challenges and to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers through our efforts,” (www.robotsise.com). RISE’s initial focus is coming up with a solution to lessen the vast lionfish numbers.
According to RISE, underwater robots satisfy several requirements necessary for the solution to be effective. First off, they can be widely deployed and are economically self-sustaining. Robots have the ability to reach lionfish population at depths that humans cannot. These robots could limit the number of dangerous scuba dives (as deep as 200 feet down) to capture the beasts. They also will be able to operate without extensive training. They are a smart and economically efficient solution.
The Robot Itself
The lionfish killer is a robot made up of several distinct parts. Although the complete robot designed to target lionfish has yet to be assembled, the individual components intended to make up the whole all currently exist. These individual parts include the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) platform, the capture mechanism, and the vision system, among many others. Currently, there are two leading designs. One of the designs carries a spear gun that resembles the method divers use to capture lionfish. The second design carries two metal electrodes that will come up on either side of the fish and electrocute it. The electric shock design takes advantage of the
extremely conductive saltwater. John Rizzi, executive director of RISE, says to think of the robot operating like a video game – “you drive the ROV until you see the fish – a lot of the technology is in the cameras – then you drive the ROV onto the fish and press the trigger.” Although, starting out, pilots will operate the robots from a boat, the long-term goal is that the lionfish robots will be able to hunt on their own.
Challenges with the Robot
The issue with the individual parts is that they have not been designed in order to be produced in large numbers at low cost or operated by non-professionals. “We’re chasing a million lionfish. We need thousands of devices and they need to be reliable, inexpensive, and safe,” says Rizzi. Another issue that arises with the creation of the robot is the fear it might target the wrong fish. To overcome this, RISE is working to develop high-tech recognition software that will ensure the robot kills lionfish exclusively.
Despite these setbacks, RISE is confident that the knowledge present from the existing parts gives them the ability to create a robot capable of controlling the lionfish populations.
Government agencies such as NOAA are behind the idea as well. Technological advances, such as the creation of this robot, combined with other control measures already in place, such as divers and traps, could make a significant difference in population numbers.
Ethics of the Issue
With the release of this new method to control lionfish populations comes the question of “is it ethical?” Is it fair to the lionfish, which were introduced by humans to our waters? Of course it’s not. They’re living creatures that didn’t migrate here on their own. That being said, “the science is pretty clear that lionfish do have an adverse impact on the ecosystem,” comments DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). Biologists worry about the lionfish being killed humanely, however spearing is considered the most humane method for the fish to go.
Prototypes of the robots are currently undergoing test to evaluate their efficiency, including how many fish can be killed, the energy requirements it takes to run, and determining the most successful design. These tests will continue to run for the next year. RISE hopes that their design could be successful in the future in controlling other nuisance species as well.
Lionfish between electric panels: http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/18/world/lionfish-robot-killer/
RISE logo: http://robotsise.com/lionfish-project/
Robot with electric shock: http://www.livescience.com/56251-lionfish-killing-robot-roomba-makers.html
Diver spearing lionfish: http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/18/world/lionfish-robot-killer/